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Wouldn't you like to be a librarian?

posted on 22 Feb 2017

Wouldn't you like to be a librarian?

I've lost count of the number of people who have asked me this over the years. Whenever anyone discovers how much I read and how deeply I love books they immediately assume that being a librarian would have been my ideal job. However, in truth, I have never really considered it as a possibility.

I have to confess that I have something of a conflicted attitude to libraries. Whilst I think that there is something very special about libraries and what they stand for as essential components of a civilised culture, I have never been a great user of libraries myself. I recognise the magical role they have played in the lives of many people and the personal testimonies of these people can be inspirational and touching. But that wasn't my own experience.

I came to reading comparatively late - I was well into my teens before books were a significant factor in my life. Once I did start reading I found that I didn't just want to read the books, I wanted to own them. The idea of borrowing a book and having to return it struck me as a completely unacceptable notion - why would I want to give back something that had become a part of my life story? Even now I have a disturbingly detailed recall of where I found pretty much all of the books in my personal collection - collecting them seems to be an integral part the book experience for me.

I also didn't like what happened to books in libraries. A combination of many hands and clumsy use quickly makes any volume tatty and looking ill-used but, for me, the libraries own marks of ownership despoil the book and turn it from a thing of beauty to a thing of utility. All those stamps, tickets, bar codes and grey cloudy book jacket protectors feel to me like an act of vandalism, badges of ownership that strip the book of its tactile and aesthetic dimension.

I recognise entirely that this probably says a lot more about me than about the shortcomings of libraries but I was reminded of all these feelings when I recently purchased  Chris Paling's new book Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library. This is a slight but thoroughly entertaining series of anecdotes of the day by day life of a library and its array of regular customers - some eccentric, some aggressive, some depressing, some vulnerable but all of them using the library as an integral part of whatever life they were living.

What Paling's book confirms for me is that the life of the public library is only coincidently about books - in practice the library and the people staffing them are an essential social service playing an important part in the health and well-being of our communities. But for a book obsessive like me, this isn't a dream job.

I suspect that there are indeed specialist jobs in specialist libraries that might suit a bibliophile but it isn't on the public frontline. Chris Paling, a writer himself, navigates through his day by day confrontations with astonishing good grace and humour but I can't help but feel that the books rather vanish into the background.

I turned to bookselling rather than librarianship and I've never really regretted it. As I approach my later years it's owning a bookshop I hanker for - I still never think 'if only I'd become librarian'.

 

Terry Potter

February 2017